Climbing Cedar Mountain East Summit In Montana’s Madison Range
Location: Cedar Mountain East Summit, Taylor Hilgard Unit, Lee Metcalf Wilderness, Madison Range, Montana
Rating: Grade II Class 3+
Trailhead: Multiple Options
Distance: 16+ miles round trip
Time: 7 to 10 hours round trip
Cedar Mountain East Summit Peak Elevation: 10,768′
Total Vertical: 4550’+
Lat/Long: 45.2267, -111.5116
Maps: Fan Mountain, Lone Mountain, Lake Cameron, Sphinx Mountain
Cedar Mountain is located in the Taylor Hilgard Unit of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness inside the Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest in the Madison Range of Montana. It’s a massive mountain that resembles a mountain cathedral. Cedar Mountain has an incredible ridge line that wraps around a stunning cirque that holds the aquamarine Cedar Lake.
Along the ridge you’ll find high points like 10459, 10768 (East) and 10479. Yet, the West Summit of Cedar at 10,780′ is not even labeled and is the highest point. This trip report covers our journey to the top of Cedar Mountain’s East Summit – point 10768′. According to Montana.gov, this is the highest point on Cedar Mountain.
Cedar Mountain’s ridge line wraps around a large cirque that contains the stunning aquamarine Cedar Lake before it tumbles out on Cedar Falls and drains out into Cedar Creek. It’s one of the more beautiful settings in the Madison Range, but it’s remote and hard to access.
Cedar Mountain can be approached from numerous different trailheads. Perhaps the most popular access begins at the trailhead located at the bottom of the Jack Creek Road on the West side of the Madison Range. Access from the Big Sky side is blocked by private land. If you are granted access from Moonlight Basin or via the Yellowstone Club, Cedar Mountain is a much closer objective.
Starting from the end of the Jack Creek Road, Hop onto the Jack Creek Trail #317. It goes uphill through forests for roughly 3.4 miles when it hits a dirt access road. The access road continues on to 7,100′ near Shadow Lake. This is where I remembered to start (and stop) my Gaia GPS and Suunto Ambit3 Peak. From here the trail becomes a real trail once again and soon enters the Lee Metcalf Wilderness.
From the Shadow Lake turnoff to the first trail split is roughly 2.1 miles and gains about 615′. Here the trail splits again. To the right Trail 344 takes you to Trail 321 and onwards to Cedar Lake. To the left, the Jack Creek Trail continues. We opted to follow the Jack Creek Trail because we wanted to summit via the ridge.
We continued on the Jack Creek Trail for 2 miles and 1100′ until it intersects the Cedar Loop Trail. At this point, turn southwest and follow the trail uphill. Be respectful and don’t enter the private property owned by the Yellowstone Club. We followed the trail for a little while longer and then stuck to the ridge line, which is also the boundary for the Lee Metcalf Wilderness.
The ridge makes for decent walking and the views are outstanding. A few sections look intimidating as you approach, but as you sneak up on them numerous ascent options open up. The final push to point 10459 on the ridge line was a grueling slog up loose rock.
After reaching point 10459, you can spot Lone Mountain, Fan Mountain, Cedar Lake and both summits of Cedar Mountain. The ridge rolls up and down. Careful route finding along the ridge is necessary, but it’s also relatively straightforward. Loose rock underfoot is the biggest concern – especially because the views are so distracting.
The ridge goes up and hits a sub peak around 10,600′ then drops down to about 10,400′ at a col before the final summit push. The last section of ridge is has one almost 4th class section and then with a bit more walking you’re on top of Cedar Mountain’s East Summit. The views are mind blowing.
Sphinx Mountain and the Helmet, Pioneer, Spanish Peaks, Lone Mountain, and the distant Taylor Hilgards. A good eye can make out Echo and Koch in the distance. Cedar Lake drops out below you and Ennis Lake and the Madison Valley can be seen far below. We could have spend all day there, but we chose to descend after about 20 minutes.
One route option that we considered was to continue around the cirque and drop down on the far side above the lake near point 10479. Due to a few timing issues, we decided to to backtrack down to the last col at 10,400′, and down climb the scree to the lake as this was definitely faster than heading along the unknown ridge line – although we plan to come back and complete the Cedar Mountain Ridge Traverse.
In another 45 minutes, we were at 9500′ staring across the aquamarine Cedar Lake and up toward the summits and rocky ridgeline far above our heads. There are remnants of wheelbarrows and other items laying around the lake, which is actually dammed. People tell me there are big fish in the lake too, but I can not verify that.
A faint climber trail works down the northwest face below the lake and drops quickly from 9500′ to 8700′. A massive waterfall tumbles down the cliff face of Cedar Mountain below the dam. You’ll find a well established horse camp located here near trail 321.
The trail drops steadily downhill over the course of about 3 miles to an elevation of 7366′ where it intersects trail 344. From here Trail 321 fades to the west, while Trail 344 crosses a meadow and climbs steadily up almost 350′ in 0.6 miles back to where it intersects Trail 317, the Jack Creek Trail. Follow the Jack Creek Trail all the way back to the access road at 7100′ at Shadow Lake.
Climbing Cedar Mountain East Summit was an amazing adventure. If I could do it again, I would continue along the ridge and complete the Cedar Mountain Ridge Traverse. Or if I only wanted to climb Cedar Mountain East Summit, I would hike to Cedar Lake and then climb the scree slope up to the col below the final summit.
Our adventure, only calculating from Shadow Lake to the East summit of Cedar Mountain and back to Shadow Lake (because that’s what my watch tracked) took 8 hours. We covered 15.95 miles and 4550 vertical feet.
Watch panorama views from the summit of Cedar Mountain’s East Summit:
View route of our climb of Cedar Mountain East in Montana on HillMap:
Additional photos from climbing Cedar Mountain East Summit in Montana:
This trip report for climbing Cedar Mountain’s East Summit in Montana’s Madison Range is from August 12, 2016.
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